About a dozen Coachella Valley Unified bus drivers and transportation employees made public comments at Thursday's board meeting to defend their professionalism and call on Trustee Jesus Gonzalez to apologize for comments he made about bus drivers two weeks ago.
Also during the meeting, Beth Caskie, a labor relations representative for the California School Employees Association that represents the bus drivers, accused Gonzalez of union-busting and of making "scurrilous, defamatory comments" about the districts' drivers. Union-busting is illegal.
On June 9, the Board of Trustees and Superintendent Luis Valentino acknowledged parents' concerns that buses had been running late to pick up students, sometimes leaving kids outside in the sun for more than an hour and getting them to school after classes begin.
The problem is mostly due to a bus driver staff shortage that is affecting districts nationwide.
The district has 78 bus routes but only 65 drivers and "hiring has been difficult," district spokesperson Lissette Santiago told The Desert Sun on June 16.
At the last board meeting, district leaders acknowledged the labor shortage as a cause for the problem, but Gonzalez blamed the union, as well. He said the union was supporting a culture of district bus drivers "calling in sick so that they can achieve their overtime, and, in the process of doing that, they leave our children."
Gonzalez proceeded to say he supported privatizing the district's transportation.
"When you want to contract out a union member's job, that's union-busting," Caskie said on Thursday.
Rosa Rapan, a school bus driver, said the reason kids have on occasion not been picked up on time at their bus stops is principally due to an inadequate number of personnel.
"We had schools with only one school bus the whole school year that should have two or three," said another driver.
"We are not the perfect department, but to be called inhumane ... " the driver said as her time for public comment expired.
Gonzalez called kids waiting in the sun for their buses "inexcusable" and "inhumane."
Other bus drivers acknowledged Thursday that sometimes they call in sick to work, but it's not part of a union plan to glean overtime.
Rather, one driver said she calls in sick on Fridays to receive chemotherapy.
"We're people, too," said another bus driver, Daniel Gonzalez. "We have a right to call in sick."
Comments turn to shouting
One bus driver, Albert Garcia, took the microphone multiple times and alleged that Jesus Gonzalez recently confronted him at a casino and "degraded" him in front of people in public.
Garcia said Gonzalez "threatened" him and his peers and their jobs at the casino, and he called the trustee a "damn liar" and a "horrible man."
Subsequently, Gonzalez shouted from the dais that Garcia was a liar.
This is not the first time in the last year that Gonzalez has been engaged in a shouting match from the dais.
Later, Gonzalez denied Garcia's allegations, and Trustee Sylvia Paz acknowledged that although Gonzalez has a habit of angering people from the dais, she does not believe him to be a liar, a sentiment with which Trustee Adonis Galarza agreed.
A half-hearted apology
During his board address after the public comment period, Gonzalez thanked multiple times the bus drivers and union leadership for showing up to Thursday's meeting. But he was coy about offering an apology, finally saying, "If I offended anybody, I apologize for that."
He did not address allegations of union-busting, and he did not back down from his position that the district's transportation department has some employees who do not "do what they're supposed to do everyday" and said the district has a potential problem with allotting overtime. Nor did Gonzalez mention privatizing the transportation department like he did last meeting.
"Thank you all for being here," Gonzalez said. "I want to thank the union leadership for showing up today, and I want to thank each and every bus driver that showed up. It's a hard discussion, right? But I truly believe that out of this hard discussion we get a chance to be better. I really enjoyed listening to the bus drivers and their commitment to their job, and I believe that 95% of them do what they're supposed to do every day.
"And I think that where we fall short is that we have practices that, I believe, have put us in a position where we're spending a lot of money in overtime, and we need to get our hand around it," Gonzalez continued.
He added that he thinks he and union leadership have the same goals: "delivering the most responsible, best and safest transportation that's good for our children."
He said he supports the district's ongoing efforts to hire 14 new bus drivers to fill its employee shortage.
Then, he called to use data to find inefficiencies in the transportation department.
"I have the moral obligation as an elected official to make sure that my job at protecting the interests of the children, protecting the dollars that we have, to make sure that we're getting for $1 that we spent, that we're getting a dollar's worth of work," Gonzalez said.
Notably, Gonzalez chairs the district's facilities committee, which oversaw the construction of Palm View Elementary in Coachella, which he reported last fall to be $30 million over budget.
In the 1990s, as the mayor of Coachella, Gonzalez was indicted on felony bribery and conspiracy charges. Years later he pleaded guilty to a single, lesser charge, but Gonzalez has always maintained his innocence, saying the charges were politically motivated. After Gonzalez completed his probation in 2002, the plea was vacated.
On Thursday, he denied all the allegations made against him by bus driver Albert Garcia, but said he did see Garcia at a casino, recently. He said he has known Garcia for many years but wasn't aware that Garcia was a district employee until he saw him at the casino.
"I find it troubling that somebody would get up on the microphone and lie," Gonzalez said.
Finally, Gonzalez restated his gladness to see the union leadership at the meeting but stopped short of a full apology and recounted his commitment to "truth."
"I truly thank the leadership for being here," Gonzalez said again at the end of his board address. "I think, you know, as hard as the message was, I think it's cool that people will organize. But I want to believe that every day that I wake up, that I seek the truth, because that's the way I live my life."
"That's my moral obligation when I wake up — that I seek the truth," he continued. "And I can be called a lot of things, but I'm not a liar. So, anyway, I look to working — being a part of the solution, and I want to continue to do what I do here on the dais. If I offended anybody, I apologize for that."
Jonathan Horwitz covers education for The Desert Sun. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Writes_Jonathan.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: CVUSD transportation workers demand apology from Trustee Jesus Gonzalez